JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Turnout for Tuesday’s special election runoff to fill a vacant congressional seat in north Mississippi was sparse in some areas, but strong in the county that is home to the longshot Democratic candidate.
Republican Trent Kelly and Democrat Walter Zinn are vying to serve most of a two-year term started by Republican Rep. Alan Nunnelee, who was 56 when he died of brain cancer in February.
Kelly is favored in the 1st District, a seat held by Republicans for most of the past 20 years. If Zinn somehow were to score an upset, however, he would be only the second African-American congressman in Mississippi since Reconstruction.
The district includes all of or part of 22 counties, stretching from the Tennessee line down to Winston County in central Mississippi. Before the seat became controlled by Republicans, it was held for 53 years by Democrat Jamie Whitten, who worked his way up to the chairmanship of the House Appropriations Committee and brought millions of federal dollars to one of the poorest states in the nation.
Zinn and Kelly advanced to the runoff from a field of 13 candidates in the first round of voting May 12.
Pamela Weaver, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, said turnout was “very light” across the district Tuesday.
Officials in some Republican-leaning counties, including DeSoto County just south of Memphis, said voting was sparse. But in Zinn’s home of Pontotoc County, Circuit Clerk Melinda Nowicki said more people than expected had voted by absentee ballot before the runoff, and turnout was brisk.
“I think it’s as high as it was May 12, if not higher,” Nowicki said Tuesday afternoon.
In Marshall County, where Zinn did well three weeks ago, Circuit Clerk Lucy Carpenter said turnout Tuesday appeared relatively strong. She said Zinn supporters were holding signs outside some of the larger precincts.
Zinn, 34, of Pontotoc, is an attorney and political consultant making his first run for public office.
Kelly, 49, of Saltillo, is a military veteran and district attorney for seven counties, all of which are in the congressional district.
Although special-election ballots in Mississippi don’t include party labels, all 13 candidates told voters their affiliation. Zinn was the only Democrat, and the only African-American, who ran. He received 17 percent of the voting on May 12, and Kelly received 16 percent.
Kelly has received support from Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and other Republicans. He has also outspent Zinn, who has received little backing from national Democratic groups.
Zinn comes from a family with generations of Baptist church leaders in the Pontotoc area. He said he believes his message — improving education and health care and leveraging government resources to help people create opportunities — will appeal to voters in Mississippi, a Bible Belt state that has long struggled at the bottom of economic and education rankings.
“They’re in love with a David-and-Goliath kind of story,” Zinn said last week in Tupelo. “Someone said myself being last on the ballot just fits into so many Scriptures … ‘The first will be the last, and the last shall be first.’ Those things are rallying points for so many here. I think that considering Mississippi’s history, they identify with being the underdog, they identify with being underfunded. They identify with being left out.”
Kelly has campaigned on cutting spending and limiting federal regulations on businesses. He said at a campaign reception last week in Nesbit that he looks to God for guidance and that his experience in combat taught him to be decisive.
“It teaches you leadership. Not in a book, but you get to actually apply and you get to do a job where ‘no’ is not an alternative,” Kelly said. “You have to figure out ways to be successful. It would be the same way in passing bills or getting legislation through. I will not accept ‘no’ for an answer. We’ll figure out the right way and retool or re-equip to do whatever we need to do the things that are helpful to Mississippi.”
After the Mississippi runoff, the only vacant seat in the 435-member U.S. House will be in Illinois, where Republican Rep. Aaron Schock resigned in March amid questions about his spending. The primary in central Illinois’ 18th District is July 7, and the special election is Sept. 10. Neither election will change the partisan balance of the Republican-controlled House. Before Tuesday’s election, Republicans held 245 seats and Democrats held 188.
(Photo Source: AP)